I genuinely enjoy fiction ghostwriting because it never feels like a job. Yes, I have deadlines and instructions to follow, but it’s basically like completing a writing prompt with the added bonus of a paycheck.
However, my first excursion into the ghostwriting world had some truly heartbreaking moments because I was unfamiliar with the process. I would encourage writers to try their hand at ghostwriting, but I do not want anyone else to make my mistakes. Here’s what I did wrong.
Peanuts for Pay
I was fresh out of college and looking for my first paid job as a writer. I came across a woman in France who needed a ghostwriter for the first book of a fairy tale fiction ebook series. I applied, interviewed over Skype, and won the job over a far more experienced freelancer; so needless to say, I was thrilled. So thrilled, that I hardly paid attention to what I would be paid: only a couple hundred dollars. I hardly knew what a ghostwriter was, much less what they were supposed to make; all I knew was that I would be paid to write a story, and that sounded amazing.
I got about halfway through the work before the initial buzz wore off and I realized I was doing a whole lot for an amount that wouldn’t even cover one month’s rent. I did the research that I should have done before I even applied and found that I should have been making a couple thousand dollars, not a couple hundred. Around the same time, the client said she loved what I was doing and wanted to offer me the contract for the second book, with a pay raise. However, the raise she offered was only a few hundred dollars more. I sent her the link to Writer’s Digest’s chart on how much to charge for different writing services and told her that what she was offering didn’t seem like enough. She responded that she could not afford to pay me anymore and that I would probably find it very hard to find someone willing to pay me that much. She said she understood if I didn’t want to continue, but she would be sorry to lose me. I took a few days to think it over, and I convinced myself that she was right. First lesson: never trust that every client posting on a freelance site is a professional in that field and charging a professional rate. I believed she knew what she was talking about, but later came to realize that she was just a green as me. Sadly, not until I signed that second contract. I told myself that she probably wasn’t going to make much money off the books anyways, so it was a reasonable exchange.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I loved working for this client. She was kind, enthusiastic, and communicative. I don’t think she lied about not being able to afford more. She was only a few years older than me and trying to start her own marketing business. I consider her a friend, but we made some big mistakes together.
My client was a marketer, not a writer. She had chosen a genre and plot that she had noticed was “hot” at the moment with young adults. She had the bare bones of a plot written out in a two page outline, which she presented to me. I loved the plot foundation, and my imagination ran wild with it. I immediately fired suggestions at the client to enhance the plot, even suggesting a new character and redefining the main character’s relationship with the villain so that the story would have a stronger dynamic. She was thrilled and showered me with genuine praises that only spurred me on. I turned her two page outline into a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline with character descriptions, motivations, and backgrounds before I even got started writing.
NEVER DO THIS! This was the source of my pain later on. The money wasn’t that important (although it did sting a little when one trip to the grocery burned through my whole pay check for 3 months work). But I put far too much of my own creativity into that first book. If I was a coauthor and my name had been on the cover, this wouldn’t have mattered, but I was writing as a ghost.
If you are ghostwriting fiction, your client should provide you with an outline like the one I crafted for this client. If they give you a tiny outline, it is probably because they really think it is enough. The reason they need you is because they aren’t a writer. They honestly don’t realize that the basic plot line doesn’t make a book. They don’t understand the effort you have to put in if they just say, “Johnny saves Jennifer from the evil queen.” They don’t think about the creative work that you are going to have to contribute in figuring out how Johnny does this. To a writer, this is self-evident, but it isn’t to everyone. Non-writers also don’t automatically understand that characters need underlying motivations that explain why they do what they do. They don’t think to outline a character’s personality, so if you don’t ask them to, you will have to craft that main character into a believable person with your own imagination.
Before I started writing the second book for that client, I asked her to copy my outline style and explained why. She agreed and said she’d have it within a week, but it ended up taking her two. It gave her a better appreciation of what a writer does, and it made me feel much better about the second book.
Before you accept a job, tell the client how detailed their outline needs to be and make them agree that they will fill in any holes you find. If they don’t agree, walk.
When that first book came out, I was on cloud nine. A book I wrote was for sale on Amazon, and thanks to the client’s preemptive marketing strategy, it already had reviews, and they were all great ones. I ate up those reviews.
I had prepared myself for not seeing my name on the book, so that didn’t bother me. I was just ecstatic that people actually liked it.When the reviews praised the “writer,” I was absolutely giddy.
However, it gave me a little twinge when the reviews would say things like, “(Client’s name) has created a immersive world I can see, smell, and taste. She’s an author to look out for.” A nasty little voice in my head said, “She’s not an author. I wrote the whole thing.” Seeing the client called an author hurt because I had indeed created pretty much everything. I had added the details of the fantastical world that everyone was raving about. The client had contributed nothing to the setting. I had even created one of the characters people were talking about, and really, I had crafted the characters so much that it felt like I created them all. I kept telling myself, “You never would have written this if she hadn’t hired you, Hannah,” but because I had contributed so much, that didn’t seem to matter. I had made the story what it was. Yet, the client was an author, and I was still a nobody. Any writer will know that when you create characters, set them on a path you devised, and watch them grow, you are contributing a part of yourself to the story. That’s what hurt the most. The fact that I was barely paid was just icing on the cake.
I had put a large piece of myself into that book, and my name wasn’t even on it. I couldn’t tell anyone but my family and close friends that I’d had anything to do with it. My family was ecstatic and bought up hard copies like mad. I had warned them that I couldn’t talk about my involvement on the internet or it would violate my contract, but my sister got a little confused. She was trying to help support me and promote the book, so she put a link to the book’s Facebook page on her page and said something like, “My sister has a book published, go check it out.” She thought it was okay because she was promoting the book and she hadn’t directly mentioned my name, but when the client saw the post linked to her page with lots of comments saying “So proud of you, Hannah,” she got very angry with me. I had to call up my sister and tell her to take down her post. That’s when the first tears came.
After the client calmed down, she apologized for how angry she got, but all I kept thinking was, “You aren’t actually the author, so why are you so upset?”
When ghostwriting is done right, the client really is the author. You craft the sentences, but they craft the story. When done correctly, ghostwriting is a whole lot of fun. I have ghostwritten three other fiction books since then (one for the same client), and I have felt no crushing heartache over any of them.
This post is not meant to scare you away from ghostwriting, but only to warn you against the problems that arise if you walk into it as naively as I did.